Six Great Books about the Immigrant Experience
01 Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
In the early 1900s, a teenager falls for a silver-tongued stranger on the coast of Korea. But when the relationship falters, she flees into a marriage with a sickly traveling minister and escapes to Japan, setting in motion the events that will shape the generations to come.
“Noa didn’t care about being Korean when he was with her; in fact, he didn’t care about being Korean or Japanese with anyone. He wanted to be, to be just himself, whatever that meant; he wanted to forget himself sometimes.”
Pachinko is a sweeping generational story of hardship, sacrifice, and fifty years of Korean-Japanese cultural conflict beginning in the early twentieth century, as seen through the experiences of one family. The many details of daily life (food, dress, tradition) in Korea and Japan made the almost-500-page story come alive for me.
02 The Girl Who Smiled Beads by Clemantine Wamariya
Wow. Wamariya writes beautifully and brutally honestly about her journey of fleeing from Rwanda and through six other African countries—with her tough, hustling older sister Claire—during and after the Rwandan genocide.
In The Girl Who Smiled Beads: A Story of War and What Comes After, Wamariya recalls her experiences through her childlike point of view, which allows for a painfully pure set of painful memories, betrayals, horrors, and sometimes a steeled numbness.
Wamariya shares her views of the world, her often jarring experiences in the US—with her sister and family on weekends in inner city Chicago and her weekday life and schooling in wealthy Kenilworth, then Hotchkiss and Yale and beyond—and her search to help other refugees’ stories be known and for her own peace. The author's tone and voice is like poetry at times, raw and spare and true.
03 In the Country We Love: My Family Divided by Diane Guerrero
The heart of Diane Guerrero's story is powerful: a hardworking family is preyed upon by criminals' financially ruinous scams against undocumented workers; the family members experience years of constant fears of deportation; and then they must face the shocking potential reality of deportation itself.
Guerrero's interest in drama and her later fame ultimately help buoy her up despite her personal agony and family heartbreak, and she ultimately becomes an activist for immigration reform.
Meanwhile, Guerrero is young and often sounds like it as she flits from topic to topic in her account of her life and especially her experiences as an actress in Orange Is the New Black.
The details of her immigrant family's challenges, struggles, and strength were the elements I found most affecting about In the Country We Love.
04 The Sleepwalker's Guide to Dancing by Mira Jacob
When practical surgeon Thomas begins speaking aloud and at length to his long-dead Indian relatives, his daughter Amina is called home to try to soothe him and help her mother figure out what's going on.
In The Sleepwalker's Guide to Dancing, Jacob alternates between the past and present, India and Seattle, shaping the stories of each of the family members Thomas is conversing with and ultimately telling the story of an extended family and its many ups and downs.
The title may be a little self-conscious, but the book itself is darkly funny, with wonderfully paced dialogue and compelling characters' lives you can get lost in. Jacob writes beautiful meditations on allowing oneself to either be haunted by the past or embrace its everyday presence in your life; accepting fateful choices and their ongoing impact; carving out an identity that both encompasses and is separate from a family's immigration, ethnicity, and familial ties; and letting go.
05 Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions by Valeria Luiselli
“Because—how do you explain that it is never inspiration that drives you to tell a story, but rather a combination of anger and clarity? How do you say: No, we do not find inspiration here, but we find a country that is as beautiful as it is broken, and we are somehow now part of it, so we are also broken with it, and feel ashamed, confused, and sometimes hopeless, and are trying to figure out how to do something about all that."
This is a long essay (but a short book) illustrating the complex behind-the-scenes challenges and tragedies surrounding the child migration crisis in the US.
Luiselli structures Tell Me How It Ends around the forty questions interpreters ask of undocumented children during their intake interviews upon arrival in the country. She explores the contradictions between potential safety and a future for immigrants and a reality that is more brutal and uncertain than the children and their parents may have feared.
6 A Woman Is No Man by Etaf Rum
In A Woman Is No Man, Etaf Rum explores the often powerless and essentially voiceless statuses of her female characters within their conservative Arab culture, both in Palestine and as immigrants and first-generation Americans in New York.
Much of this is dark. Yet there are bright points: some rare friendships emerge, sisters build intense loyalty to each other, girls and women find joy in secret reading and in books, women find strength and demand truth rather than secrecy, and there are occasional breaks to freedom. The details Rum provides as a thread throughout the book of the food, spices, and meals that create much of the structure of the women’s days are wonderful.
A Woman Is No Man ultimately explores the superhuman drive and bravery required by Rum's female characters--but also many other real-life women in comparable situations--to write a new history, one in which they enjoy basic freedoms and a voice.
For my full review of this book, please see A Woman Is No Man.
What are some of your favorite books about the immigrant experience?
I could have listed many other powerful books about immigrants (What Is the What, American Street, The Book of Unknown Americans, and Girl in Translation also came to mind), and I have countless more related books on my to-read list (Transcendent Kingdom, Homeland Elegies, Ungrateful Refugee, Exit West, Unaccompanied, The Refugees, Home Fire, and others). Last year's American Dirt--and the intense controversy surrounding it--could be its own long post.
But these four fiction works and two nonfiction titles are some that have stuck with me in one way or another, each offering glimpses into the challenges and triumphs of leaving one land and tackling another; striving to hold on to culture while navigating unfamiliar pitfalls; and the fears and joys of seeking a new life in a new place.